Environmental & Architectural
The Placeless, Neighborless Realm:
Language, Homescape, and Reinhabitation
Tom Jay is a sculptor, poet, and writer who lives in Chimacum, Washington. He writes poems and essays about the bioregional implications of art and ideas of home and place. He also creates sculptures on these themes. This essay is part of a longer article, "Familiar Music: Reinhabiting Language," originally published in the 1995-96 volume of Connotations, the journal of the Island Institute, Sitka, Alaska, and is reprinted with permission. © 1996, 2003 Tom Jay.
Every language on the planet has an age. English is relatively young, 700 years old, the child of a spear point wedded between Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. Some languages are thousands of years old‑-Irish, German, Greek, and Persian. Some are tens of thousands of years old‑-Kung, Ainu, Basque, and the Aboriginal languages of Australia and the Americas.
Each language has been lorically1 shaped by its homescape. Languages live and die, lasting as long as their lore is true. As the Irish poetess Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill remarked in the NY Times Book Review,
Languages offer unique perspectives on the world, different articulations of reality. Twenty years ago I had a conversation with a then young friend named Ben. When Ben was five or six years old, his family moved to the South Pacific island of Woleai. His parents had contracted to teach English as a second language to the people of Woleai. Ben soon became fluent in Woleain and entered the culture it centered.
For eight years, Ben spoke English with his parents and Woleain with everyone else. I once asked him if he believed in ghosts. "When I speak English, I don't," he replied. "What do you mean? I asked. "Well," he answered, "When I speak Woleain on Woleai, I see them." Language in synch with a landscape ripe with ancestral mythology can precipitate a numinous reality.
Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill makes a similar point:
Further on Dhomhnaill picks up the theme on a deeper level:
The diversity of languages, like the diversity of species, is founded in landscapes. Mountains, rivers, seas, and deserts impound and amplify our various linguistic streams. The Pyrenees and Alps transformed Latin into Spanish, French, and Italian. The ethno-linguistic puzzle of Aboriginal California is nearly synchronous with the larger features of Californian geography. Long residency in a locale, dwelling in its focus,2 works resonance into language; local vernacular, the precious "mettle" of neighborhoods, is coined in the slow alchemy of human beings ancestrally rooted in place.
These are quaint, almost esoteric, notions to us moderns. The deep wisdom and prescient witness of languages rooted and nourished in landscape seem archaic to modernity and its current shibboleth, the sharp toothed "wisdom" of the market.
Certainly, language is not static. Words are born and die. Like other life forms, they adapt their behaviors to fit new circumstances, new weather. Words may spiral through a classical, almost formal, transformation from an original meaning to its opposite. Linguists tell us that, at least until recently, this pilgrimmage usually took about 300 years.
In the reductive heat of commercial-industrial time, however, words fare no better than souls or small birds. Consider the word bad, which has recently somersaulted through our speech, its gyre a circus act rather than a slow, stately, and shadowy round dance‑-what the ancients called enantodromia.
When I was a child in the late forties and early fifties, bad meant wicked‑-a sense still close to its root meaning of "open to all influence, especially the worse." By the time I was in high school, bad still meant wicked to my parents, but to my peers and me it meant brazen, tough, strong, and fearsome. By the seventies, Michael Jackson had promoted bad into a word that evoked daring and personal power. Bad nearly finished its loop in 30 years. I fear for bad, we may have exhausted it, fried it in the overheated rush of our ennui-driven need for clever new twists of speech to advertise our "attitude."
It is telling that the defining metaphor of recent society, "the bottom line," derives from a business profit and loss statement. Evidently our reality is founded on currency, cash flow and liquidity. No wonder our endeavors seem to float and drift rather than root or stand.
Money and the easy logic of profit have conspired with hyper-inventive and increasingly frivolous technologies to foster a civilization addicted to speed and change, revolution rather than evolution. The fossil-fueled mechanics and spendthrift energetics of modern civilization and its entropic friction with the natural world have serious consequences for the conservative dynamics of language. Market-induced entropy has overwhelmed and obliterated indigenous dialects and reduced, simplified, and polished our present speech into a dubious glass that reflects our vanity and cleverness rather than refracting the wonder of creation into our collective understanding.
Students of English report that English is losing its spoken vocabulary, the diversity of its terms, despite its eminence as the lingua franca of the planet. And therein lies the reason for its malaise. Perhaps English is forfeiting its descriptive power because it has assumed a generic monocultural perspective. English is spoken everywhere but it doesn't live anywhere. Everywhere but England, English is becoming a language without a landscape. English is an imported language and, though it reigns, it doesn't dwell, a husband without a home.
Indeed if English continues to thin in the mono-pop flood it facilitates it may diminish into a trade language intimate with markets and politics but unable to name the quality of light on the snow-dusted spruce of a wind clear Sitkan sunset. English has become the official argot of the fluxing no man's land of the market, and the market has become a kind of "virtual" planetary film, an agitated, digitized dead fish iridescence, a communication without community, a commerce bereft of mercy, a thin and tragic dissolution of earth's beauty.3
Still there remain spirited English vernaculars, dialects of local color and weather-quickened wit (I recall my Gulf Coast Texan brother-in-law's description of Ross Perot as a hand grenade with a bad haircut). But the neighborhoods of these loric idioms are increasingly vulnerable to the acetone media and its solvent capacity to smudge the subtlest and brightest hues of lingo. It is difficult indeed for indigenous beings‑-birds, words, plants, critters and perhaps now even weather to escape the money-driven institutionalized revolution embodied in modern growth capitalism.
But permanent revolution, economic or political, is terror‑-a terror as real as Robespierre's, Stalin's, Khomeni's or Mao's. And we are conspiring with that terror in the way we've let ourselves be named. We are now by consensus and our own calling consumers, a word that derives from the Latin consumo, to spend everything, to destroy utterly, to destroy by fire.
But as late as eighty years ago consumer had negative connotations. We used the term to name a selfish and wanton sort. The change in the word's usage testifies to a changed society. Eighty years ago we called ourselves neighbors, citizens, and brother and sister, skith and kin. Neighbor is an Old English word which meant near-fellow dweller. Citizen is from an Indo-European root ci or cei‑-to lie down, to rest. The same root gives us home and cemetery; a citizen is a homebody, a deep dreamer. Kith and kin arrive via Old English cyth‑-native land; and cynn relates to kindred, one's own kind, hence kith and kin, the local haunt.
Like any living creature, English wants to know where it is. Now spoken English surely lives with commerce estranged from local culture. English presently has more words in its spoken vocabulary for money than it does for moving water: bread, bucks, dough, change, cash, whip-out (my favorite), long green, swag, roll, stash, dibs, currency, quid, pile, jingle, lucre, pelf, plasting, and the like.
These words describe specific and nuanced relations to money; whip-out is not a term favored by investment bankers, nor are pelf and lucre likely to leap in the hipster's rap. English is still healthy in its mission, its instinct to witness and report its present habitat, its location. English is faithfully articulating our reality, firming and confirming the current edge between us and the large world. The rub is our world by the witness of our words is becoming a fantasy, the placeless, neighborless realm of modern culture.
In contrast, consider these words, breathless pilgrims awaiting the simple gift of our breath: Lea‑-a meadow drenched in sunlight; rill--a small forceful stream; lynn‑-a pool beneath a waterfall; beck‑-a small brook; and brook‑-a break out in the bank of a larger stream that waters a marsh. Speaking these words may rearticulate and reenliven our world.
If English continues as a commerce's barker, it may become in a few centuries a new Chinook jargon, a mono-pop argot with a simple grammar and vocabulary. The English dialects wedded to places will have perished in the cash-flow flood or evolved in fortunate solitude into sounds and names, pronunciations and enunciations incomprehensible to their cosmopolitan cousin.
The true genius of English, its poetic eye and musical ear, the subtle temper of its humor, will be reticent, musing in hinterlands "out of touch" waiting out the scourge of money's reductive, fire, faithfully naming and calling the winds, rains, and creatures of the neighborhood, the kith and kin of the natural world forsaken by its mother tongue.
In the early sixties, bioregional visionaries Freeman House and Jeremiah Gorsline used the term reinhabitation to describe a social antidote to the devastation of natural and human communities by economies of transient consumerism. They proposed that the most revolutionary act was to settle permanently in a place and assume responsibility for the neighborhood with all the near fellow dwellers, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna and, I might add, English.
We must reinhabit our language as well as our ecologies. If we stay put in deed and word our rap will gradually unravel and in time reweave us more deeply into place. Our speech will become part of the texture of locality, its felt meaning. Then our reality might once again resonate with ancestral echoes as well as the myriad voices of the weather and the land. Our words will become the welcome and the witness of our home's peculiar beauty and our lore will last nurtured in the practiced cycles of locality.
Imagine your home place‑-the giant oak in the park, the bandstand with the leaky roof, the white ice-scoured mountains, the evergreen forests and thigh-thick winter steelhead, the polished stone of your fathers grave... Imagine the familiar surround and the horizon that holds it as the rim of a bell. Imagine you are the tongue of that bell, silent and still in its shelter. The tongue cannot will itself to move and ring the bell, only the swollen wave of weather's mystery may move tongue and bell together and ring out familiar music.
1. Loric, from the Old English Laeran, to teach, to lead someone on his or her way. Laeran is akin to Old English. Laest track which gives us last, which endures, a remaining way, a path that lasts. Lore is a lasting, well worn track, the way of the ancestors.
2. Focus, from the Latin for hearth, the dwelling place of the household gods.
3. Market, from the Latin merc--merchandise, hence commerce, mercy (the price of pity?), and Mercury, god of trade, speedy messenger, secret thief, and guide of souls to the otherworld.